Hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters are threatening our buildings and communities — here’s what can be done
From hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida, and the Carolinas to wildfires breaking out across California, natural disasters have proven their ability to wreak indiscriminate havoc and destruction across North America. While it seems to be the case that there is very little that can be done to completely eliminate the threat of such disasters, there are steps that can be taken to minimize their catastrophic effect.
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria caused so much damage that the Puerto Rican government estimates it will cost $139 billion to fully recover. Meanwhile the Camp and Woolsey wildfires that ravaged California last November cost the state more than $118 million to fight and led to as much as $19 billion in property damage. This is without even mentioning the lives lost during the tragedies. Anything that can be done to mitigate such losses is worth exploring.
The IBHS Research Center
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center, located in Richburg, S.C., could be critical to developing structures that can withstand wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters. IBHS is a research organization funded by insurers and dedicated to research and testing that will lead to safer homes, businesses, and communities.
Opened in 2010, the IBHS Research Center is a true modern marvel that offers full-scale testing of buildings and building materials under the harshest conditions. The 21,000 sq. ft. test chamber is six stories high and features a turntable with a diameter of 55 feet that can turn to expose every side of a structure to reproduced weather systems. Extreme weather conditions — including those of hurricanes and wildfires — are replicated using a wall of 105 fans with 350 horsepower engines and 6-foot diameters that can generate winds of up to 130 mph, along with hail cannons, ember generators, a 50-inch radiant panel to reproduce the radiant heat of a wildfire, and rain systems that can create rainstorms dropping as much as 8 inches per hour.
Outdoors, the IBHS uses the COMET (Component Materials Evaluation Testing) apparatus to individually test parts of a building using a single fan. The research site also has a “roof farm” where new roofing materials are subjected to natural aging and tested every five years.
Learning how buildings and construction materials are affected by extreme weather provides insight into faults in design and construction that can hopefully be addressed and lead to safer structures in the future.
Unfortunately, the combination of climate change and urban and suburban sprawl extending further into fire-prone areas continues to lead to disaster. As new communities are being built and damaged ones are being reconstructed, it’s time to re-evaluate processes and learn from past mistakes.
People living and owning businesses in places at risk of fire can take simple precautions such as removing pine needles and leaves from yards and gutters and switching to composite shingles or tiled roofs, but more can be done. Cal Fire offers sage advice for fire-resistant landscaping, including planting fire-resistant plants such as ice plant, honeysuckle, rockrose, and other plants that grow close to the ground and have little sap or resin.
Sure, buildings using only concrete or brick can survive a fire, but most homeowners and workers don’t want to spend their days and nights in a house or office that resembles a prison or fortress. Fortunately, construction companies and manufacturers are stepping in to provide building materials and structures that can survive wildfires and remain aesthetically pleasing.
GigaCrete combines its unique high-performance coatings along with steel-framed buildings to manufacture affordable, fire-resistant “GigaHouses.” The steel frame and insulation make the houses energy-efficient and fire-resistant — plus, steel, being the most recycled material in the world, makes GigaHouses more sustainable than other forms of construction.
Another innovative company, Boxabl, is a modular construction company that ships prefab home systems across the U.S. from its Nevada headquarters. The modular units — made with no wood — are simple rooms that can be connected, forming customized houses. Better yet, the units are fire-resistant and can be quickly transported and made habitable. The ability to quickly transport and set up Boxabl’s units means that not only could they provide safer structures in fire-prone areas, they could also be set up to provide temporary housing for those who have been evacuated or lost homes during a fire or other natural disaster.
Lessening the Impact of Hurricanes
While Boxabl’s structures are also valuable in hurricanes due to their ability to withstand impact and high-speed winds — as well as flooding — there are other problems that need to be addressed after a major hurricane, namely infrastructure. In the case of Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria in 2017, the entire island experienced a blackout and it took 11 months before power was restored to all but 25 of the nearly 1.4 million customers who lost it during the storm.
Jonathan Marvel and his company, Marvel Architects, have stepped in to help Puerto Ricans avoid a similar fate the net time a big hurricane hits. The firm’s affordable home units are stackable and able to withstand the storm due to sturdy construction and inhabitants in a standalone unit can live off the grid for up to three months. Solar panels on the roof provide electricity, which is stored in batteries, a solar water heater provides warm showers, cross ventilation keeps the unit cool, and rain water is stored and filtered through a collection system.
Marvel has also established a non-profit, Resilient Power Puerto Rico, that reaches out to underserved communities on the island as well as city governments to install solar systems, with the ultimate goal of providing solar energy throughout the island.
Similarly, Hunters Point Marina in Cortez, Fla., is a net-zero community that resulted from the partnership of sonnenCommunity and LEED Platinum. The Gulf Coast community consists of hurricane-proof modular units that are solar powered and loaded with smart technology such as Nest Learning Thermostat that enhance sustainability.
In the Meantime
As people across the United States wait for construction and energy trends to catch up to the point where communities as a whole are better equipped to withstand the next natural disaster, there is still much to consider. Another wildfire or hurricane is surely on its way, and those affected will need assistance. People can file for disaster assistance through FEMA if they are in an area that is declared eligible, and in doing so have access to emergency shelter and immediate needs.
Companies such as Stress Free Corporate Housing and Chipman Relocation and Logistics provide emergency relocation services for households and businesses, respectively. The process is covered by insurance in most cases and keeps families safe and businesses protected from being forced to close for long periods of time after a disaster.
Services providing aid to victims offer at least some solace to those who suffered great losses in a disaster. Hopefully, once some adaptations are made to modes of construction in susceptible areas, they will also have an intact home or business to which they can return as well.